The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides parents certain options if they’re unsatisfied with the education that their children with disabilities are receiving, but government investigators say only some families are able to take advantage.

Race and income level are playing a significant role in whether families pursue due process or take other steps toward dispute resolution allowed under federal special education law, the Government Accountability Office found.

The nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress analyzed data on due process complaints, mediation requests and state complaints in five states — Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania — for the 2017-2018 school year.

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School districts located in very high-income areas were more than four times as likely to have had at least one mediation request or due process complaint as compared to very low-income districts, GAO found. Wealthier areas also recorded higher numbers of disputes overall.

Similarly, investigators noted that school districts with very high numbers of minority students generally had less dispute activity, except in regards to due process.

Disability advocates and other stakeholders told GAO investigators that several factors affect the likelihood that parents will pursue dispute resolution. In particular, the cost of attorneys and expert witnesses is a challenge. At the same time, parents often feel like they are at a disadvantage going up against their school district, fear retaliation or lack time off from work to attend hearings, according to the report.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who chairs the House education committee and was one of the lawmakers who requested the GAO investigation, said it represents a “wake-up call to school districts, states, advocates and policymakers.”

“The data clearly show that the civil rights protections provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are not equally accessible to all students,” Scott said. “I hope this report starts an important and overdue conversation about how all of us can work together to address the barriers that are preventing many students and families from advocating for the education that they are entitled to receive under federal law.”